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Opinion

Employers, practice what you preach — or pay the price

Being open about your own shortcomings removes the risk of being called out by employees or customers.

Leader

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Unleash Your Culture Sharon O’Dea explains why leaders need to take a more cautious, inward-looking approach to events including Mental Health Awareness week.

  • If you’re using awareness days to promote your diversity credentials or sell your employer brand, you’d best be sure your own record is good or you open yourselves up to criticism.
  • Instead of shooting out tweets on solving the societal-wide problem of racial injustice, develop a plan to tackle discrimination within your own hiring and pay structures.
  • Being open about your own shortcomings, while making real and tangible steps to address them, removes the risk of being called out by employees or customers.

Events such as International Women’s Day and Black History Month are designed to raise awareness of the issues affecting historically marginalized groups.

But in recent years they have become highlights in the corporate social media calendar, and hooks from which corporations can display their diversity credentials.

All too often, though, there’s a gap between messaging and reality, with employees’ experiences not living up to the same standards.

In this post I’ll explain why leaders need to take a more cautious, inward-looking approach to awareness events.

Taking a closer look

On International Women’s Day this year I decided to take a closer look at the gap between messaging and action.

When I saw corporations posting about the event, I looked at the UK’s Gender Pay Gap Service, where all companies with over 250 employees are obliged to publish their gender pay gap data and asked what they were doing about this one aspect of inequality which is in their direct control to fix.

It was eye-opening. Goldman Sachs, for example, took the bold decision to use an all-white, all-male panel to talk about financially empowering women, sharing the video on LinkedIn. Given the company’s gender pay gap statistics suggest they pay women on average 36.8% less than male colleagues, you could argue they need to look closer to home on the question of women’s financial empowerment.

And they weren’t an isolated case. Banks, retail giants, hospitality groups, FinTech firms and conglomerates pumped out a stream of hostage videos in which their young female talent talked about the joy of being a Woman At Work. But gender pay gap data shows almost all of these employers don’t afford women the basic dignity of equal pay.

Bold claims, big risks

If you’re using awareness days to promote your diversity credentials or sell your employer brand, you’d best be sure your own record is good or you open yourselves up to criticism – and rightly so.

This week the comms calendar turned to Mental Health Awareness Week. Leaders and corporate accounts took turns to reassure the world that not only are they aware of mental health issues, but they couldn’t be more supportive of those experiencing them.

This was news to those who worked for many of these organizations, who had seen their colleagues’ mental health problems ignored or dismissed – or, worse, witnessed people forced from their jobs over stress and anxiety.

Changing your avatar to a Pride flag in June does not negate turning a blind eye to homophobia in your ranks. Turning your lights off for Earth Day will do little to mitigate the carbon emissions of thousands of travelling executives.

What happens inside companies is reflected outside. But it’s never been easier to get the inside story – whether from corporate reporting, social media, or employee insights on sites like Glassdoor. That say/do gap is a huge and growing reputational risk.

The bolder the claim, the bigger the gamble. In 2017, State Street Global Advisors won plaudits for unveiling the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street for International Women’s Day. The stunt, which aimed to “spark a conversation on women’s equality issues in the US” won numerous awards for its boldness and creativity. Months later allegations emerged that State Street’s own record on gender was less than stellar, drawing criticism from women’s rights groups.

An opportunity for self-reflection

So should corporations steer clear of awareness events altogether? Not necessarily, say communications pros. They still serve a useful purpose, if you turn the attention inwards and away from marketing.

They can be used to kick-start internal initiatives, driving tangible change on the very things that organizations can directly impact. If taken seriously, and properly benchmarked, you have some tangible progress to shout about in future years.

State Street could have avoided the backlash by being more open about its own need to make progress. “Just because its own record wasn’t great doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have done it”, commented PR and corporate affairs veteran Stuart Bruce. “What they could have done is launch this while saying ‘Mea Culpa. We’re not perfect, but this is our action plan to improve. What’s yours?’”

Instead of shooting out tweets on solving the societal-wide problem of racial injustice, develop a plan to tackle discrimination within your own hiring and pay structures. Scrap that women in tech video and look at mentoring programmes within your own four walls. Make and deliver a plan to achieve pay parity. 

If you use these events to share platitudes that you’re not committed to or have a solid action plan behind, then it’s empty virtue-signalling. This can easily leave you open to criticism internally and open to reputational risk externally.

Instead, lead by example. Use awareness days to take stock of your own position, make tangible plans to address it, and begin working to bridge the gap. If you do celebrate, make sure you communicate the progress you’ve made the next time it comes around.

Being open about your own shortcomings, while making real and tangible steps to address them, removes the risk of being called out by employees or customers over hypocrisy. But more than that, these actions add up, both to drive societal-wide change, but also to a real and credible story your organization can be proud of.

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